Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blue Moon

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hiroshima Mon Amour - The Opening Sequence

Questions recently asked by "d" in the now-defunct Armchair Director forum:
I'm intrigued, though; what is happening in the beginning of this film? Is Riva herself when she's saying all that? Or is she feeling somebody elses emotions? Why is he denying all that she sais? What's with the "You saw nothing in Hiroshima" comments? Is it just a display of dubious memories? Aren't we supposed to know for sure, or am I stupid to not have figured it out?
There are many things to discuss in these questions.

From listening to Peter Cowie on the commentary, the opening sequence is Riva describing her experiences of the last few days in Hiroshima.

Cowie says:

As she talks about visiting the hospital and the museum, the people avert their faces. She cannot engage with them, instead she's a tourist, peering in at the glass walls, as it were, of a fish tank.

This begins to get at another of the above questions. Why does the Japanese man (Okada) say she saw nothing in Hiroshima? The simplest answer may suffice. Because she was not there, because her experience of that day was in Paris. Okada mentions at one point in the film that he had heard it was a sunny day in Paris the day of Hiroshima (Aug. 6th, 1945). Encountering Hiroshima for the first time in the hospital and museum, she has a completely distorted view of it. Resnais points to this by using film clips from a Japanese reconstruction of the events in a film called Children of Hiroshima.

Cowie describes the clips as used in Hiroshima Mon Amour:

Their very lack of authenticity suggests that this is how the Riva character views the catastrophe.

Yet, this simple answer does not address the way in which Resnais presents the images, nor does it get at Riva's state of mind in recounting her experience of Hiroshima (a decade and some after the actual event).

OK, first of all, we can talk more about the documentary-style of the opening sequence. Resnais had only made documentaries up to this point, including his famous Night and Fog, and the opening sequence is a continuation of the technique used in those films: notably, the long tracking shots and the incredible montage (juxtaposition of images for a greater effect). Mostly though, these images seem to me to convey a dream-like state of mind. There is an odd beauty to these images, and if this impression of the images is to say anything about Riva, we have to assume that there is much more going on with her than a normal tourist experience of a past catastrophe. More on this later. I think what is interesting to me though is what this might say about Resnais' filmmaking and the way in which we are to view the sequence.

Jacques Rivette says this about Resnais' montage from a Cahiers roundtable discussion on the film in 1959:
It's a double movement - emphasizing the autonomy of the shot and the simultaneously seeking within that shot a strength that will enable it to enter into a relationship with another or several other shots, and in this way eventually form a unity. But don't forget, this unity is no longer that of classic continuity. It is a unity of contrasts, a dialectical unity as Hegel and Domarchi would say.
This dialectical unity of the image in the opening sequence, coupled with Riva's affected voice-over, and Giovanni Fusco's unforgettable score, lend a timeless, dream-like air to the sequence. Not to mention the pure movements of the camera. We as viewers are given an experience of Hiroshima as well in the process. We encounter the twisted metal in the museum, the long hall of the hospital, the faces of the survivors.

Since we do not know the circumstances of Riva's character, we take her words and Okada's words at face value. They are simply words connected to images, and we do not associate them with characters. But is this right? The opening shot of entwined bodies without faces, only voices, adds another element to our impression of the documentary-style of the sequence. What with the affirmative recounting of experience on the part of the woman and the negative rejection on the part of the man, we get a sense of an eternal struggle for identity. The bodies, entwined, striving positively and negatively. I wonder what it means that the woman says yes but the man says no (a feminist reading may be in order). Still though, when I watch this movie, I don't think about why there is a no and a yes. I think we take it for granted that this is the situation in which the information is presented. Because of the dreamlike nature of the sequence, we are sucked in, and have no desire to question what we see and hear.

Writing that though, with the perspective of remembering Hiroshima in mind, I wonder whether that is a good thing. History does not seem to be something to take in blindly, but something to question, to grapple with. But this film is not about Hiroshima, but about remembering Hiroshima, about the act of remembering and forgetting, and how our identities are connected to our memories. In this sense, the tone of the sequence works perfectly.

With the primary action of Hiroshima in mind (remembering, forgetting, identity-forming), and with a better sense of Riva's character, we can then look again at the sequence with a new lens to see through. Cowie's straightforward explanation of the sequence, as seeing through the eyes of a tourist, no longer will suffice. The struggle between the yes and the no is too important, too passionate, to ignore.

Rivette helps introduce this new lens:

The Emmanuelle Riva character is that of a woman who is not irrational, but is not-rational. She doesn't understand herself. She doesn't analyze herself. That is the theme of Hiroshima: a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to this Japanese man, and in relation to the memories of Nevers that come back to her. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning, trying to define herself in existential terms before the world and before her past, as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.
Riva approaches her experiences of the hospital, museum, film clips etc., like a child would (like a film-goer would), with wide-open eyes, filled with wonderment. This is why when Okada says, "You saw nothing in Hiroshima," she responds, "I saw everything." Whether she consciously decided to or not, Riva is beginning the process of renewal. She takes everything in as a child, and in recounting what she has seen, as a storyteller, she is conveying what is important to her, she is defining herself. So why does Okada negate this? Perhaps he is trying to protect her. He senses that she is completely vulnerable, and taking on the horrors of a past that does not belong to her is not a positive move. However, the act of recounting is positive, is cathartic, and will become the model for Riva to tell her own story.

One of the most searing and beautiful statements she makes in the opening sequence is: "You are destroying me, you are good for me." I think it is this statement in particular that gets at the identity-forming that is desired and that will occur. In the destruction, or deconstruction, of her former self, who she was in Nevers, she will then be able to move forward. It is Okada's questioning, direction, that allow this to happen. Thus, Riva speaks to Okada when she says the above statement. It is said between lovers, said in the moment, and it is simply breath-taking.

Thus, to sum up. I think there are two ways to understand the opening sequence. One, in terms of being a viewer, relating to the images in a child-like fashion (mirroring Riva). And two, in terms of the identity-forming of Riva's character, which, we only get a better sense of after taking in the whole film.

There is probably a lot more to be said about the act of remembering and forgetting as it relates to this film. I'd love to delve more into that, because I think it would provide a striking example of how the idea of cinema relates to memory in general.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Film Reviews

I want to discuss film reviews.

A series of questions, some overlapping. Feel free to take up any of them:

- Why do we have them (what is their purpose)?

- What are they capable of (what are their limitations)?

- Is a film review capable of in-depth analysis?

- Who writes your favorite reviews? What is it about their reviews that draws you to them?

- When it comes to reviews, what should be the proportion of content to style?

- Can a review ever be called film criticism (read: scholarly) or is reviewing films necessarily a journalistic venture (can a journalistic venture be scholarly)?

- How do you feel about reviews as a medium for your own writing? Do you prefer writing in any other particular form?

- How have reviews contributed (or detracted from) film scholarship over the years?

- With respect to a review itself, what role should/can images play in juxtaposition with the text of a review?

- What role do reviews play in your film viewing?

- What role have reviews played in your film education?

I'll continue to add questions as I come up with them. Go ahead and start responding already!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Film Moments: "The Horror, the Horror"

Alright, film moments, moments that have been important to us as we have experienced them in the film universe, that we take with us into our own lives as significant. We shelve these moments away, sometimes drawing upon them for example or reference outside of what we're currently focusing on, but I want another excuse to discuss them, to share. As appreciators of film, we should be able to tell stories about our viewing experiences, just in the same way that you might tell a story about something that happened to you walking down the street the other day or even something bigger, like an important conversation with an old friend or the start of a new relationship. Films happen to us. Sometimes, a film comes slinking in the night and takes us by surprise, sometimes, a comfort movie strikes us in a new way (a tender slap in the face). I think what catches us off-guard is often a specific moment when we find ourselves drawn completely into the film universe. I don't think that for a whole film complete emotional involvement is possible, but for a moment, yes.

At any rate, I know it's not always the best thing to live from movie moment to movie moment, but in this space, we can indulge!

The first "kind" of moment I want to touch on is described by a statement one of our favorite literary characters, Kurtz, from Heart of Darkness makes: "The horror, the horror." Now, we can certainly discuss what Kurtz means by this statement, but I'll put forth my own (probably wrong) definition of the moment as we might experience it in film. When we experience this kind of moment, the film has drawn us in and led us down a certain path, and then, something for whatever reason shifts (either in the narrative or visuals or whatever) and we have a moment of recognition in which a new way of looking at things floods into our heads within the world the film has constructed (actually, that could probably describe all important film moments). But this specific moment deals I think with the depravity of humanity. It is a greater, fuller knowledge of the negative impulses that sometimes drive our lives. I want to leave the idea vague at this point, so you can put your own spin on what exactly we're dealing with here, whether it's a matter of sin or a secular ethics or whatever. This moment of recognition can either be something the film intends or maybe something that hits you at a random time.

I'll have to give an example. In L'Avventura, at the end of the film, when Claudia discovers Sandro on the couch with the prostitute, we fully realize the depravity of these characters. The moment comes slowly and carefully. Claudia wakes up in the morning after the big party, and finds that Sandro, with whom she has engaged in a whirlwind love affair, is not in the hotel room with her. She wanders through the mansion with the remnants of the party laying scattered around the spacious rooms. A dim light seeps through the windows, creating a sense of dread as Claudia moves toward a couch at the end of one of the rooms. There, on the couch, is her lover Sandro, necking with a prostitute. We know its coming when we see the couch, but we hold our breath with Claudia. The moment draws upon our hope that Claudia and Sandro (or any of the characters in this film) might find some brief happiness in the midst of their idle and indulgent lives, but the recognition is knowing that this happiness is not possible, that there will inevitably be a catch. The distractedness of these characters will not let them take part in any meaningful relationship.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Symbolism in Film

Immediate aside: Could I possibly come up with a broader question to start a discussion? Let me hone in a little more.

The idea for this post came out of a Armchair Director Forum member's mention of the use of symbolism in Children of Men. He was trying to sort out what particular images in the movie meant symbolically: premonitions of death (Clive Owen looking through a dirty and broken window at the pregnant girl outside) or easy aphorisms like life is fleeting (the appearance of the deer inside the school). Reading this, I guess, I had a negative reaction at first. How is it that we can say anything for sure about these images?

But hmm....I guess one would probably say that digging up and polishing symbolism in a film is one part of the analysis of that film. And in doing analysis, we need to try on all sorts of clothes to see which ones fit. However, I think trying to give a definite meaning to a given image or sequence can be a red herring as well. How do we know what Cuaron meant with the deer in the school? How do we know that Cuaron had something particular in mind? It is well known that scholars and admirers of Tarkovsky's films make a lot out of his use of rain in his films, yet when pressed to say what the rain means to him, Tarkovsky said something to the effect of, "It's just rain."

Of course, then one will say, well, it doesn't matter what Tarkovsky thinks because once he puts his work out there, he is no longer the authority on what his work means. Point conceded. The viewer should be an equal participant in the ongoing discussion after the filmmaker moves to start the conversation (nod to Brian Park for the idea).

But this goes on to another question: what is the most effective use of symbolism? I would argue that if I can tell that the film is trying to convey a symbol, then the film has failed in making that symbol in any way meaningful to me. I feel cheated if I notice the deer means anything other than a deer. I think this is partly what Tarkovsky is trying to get at. The scholars dice up his films to find some way to describe their primal power, but for Tarkovsky, he is filming what is natural to him. He grew up in an area of Russia where it rained a lot, apparently, so that it would rain in his films is not surprising. And anyway, the symbol's effectiveness (hiddenness) hinges on our being sucked into the film we are watching, so if we are trying to figure out the code during our viewing, we are going to get less out of the symbolism and less out of the film. So in that sense, of course Tarkovsky is going to mask his intentions (if he has any). Besides, analysis is such a personal endeavor that for a director to say, "This means that," would be both unfair to those that would take the interpretation as law, and untrue, as in, there is never going to be one meaning to a symbol and the best symbols are those that are too complex to root out anyway.

That last sentence sounds a bit simplistic in some weird way, I'm not sure. Let me explain further. I think the best expressions of cinema are those that are unexplainable. I cannot explain why the Jaguar Shark sequence is so powerful at the end of Life Aquatic . I cannot explain to you how wonderful Tarkovsky's still life set-ups are throughout his films. We're not sure why we feel the way we do, and to try to describe those feelings would be silly. This only means that in these instances, we grant that cinema has come up with its own language, one that is purely cinematic, that is not held captive by literary analysis. If it is possible to come up with some different model by which we might describe cinematic language, I'm not sure. I'm also not well-educated enough with film theory to have a grasp on whether this has already been done well (I'm sure many attempts have been made).

I might stand behind a conjecture though: pure cinema taps into our deepest expressions of self, communal and spiritual awareness, and that we will never know exactly how that works (simply because, we did not make ourselves).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Grey Gardens - Maysles Brothers (1976)

A documentary of particular note, Grey Gardens.

An old lady and her daughter (relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis) live alone in a huge, untended East Hampton house, eating ice cream and remembering the past. There is a passion and eccentricity that fill both of these women, and they fill this empty house. At times, the house seems too small for the both of them! Big Edie was an incredible singer, making records when she was younger, and also a mother of three (or four, I can't remember). Little Edie was a bombshell, a dancer and model, who rejected the men that got past her mother. Talking, always talking the both of them, and at the same time. Putting each other down, arguing about minor details from the past. Big Edie roosts in her bed as if it were a throne, cooking or looking at black-and-white photos, and always a word for her daughter. But she does it in such an unorthodox way, obsessively adjusting the brim of a floppy hat, peering through her bent glasses, that she comes off as a harmless old lady. We know that she has a hold on her daughter though: she has kept her daughter by her side for the majority of her daughter's adult life.

It is Little Edie that intrigues me the most. She says over and over how much she wants to get out of the house, out of the Grey Gardens as they call it. But Little Edie is 56 years old, and has been living with her mother for almost 25 years. She wears costumes and dances around the house as if she were constantly putting on a show. Edie reminds me of a movie star of old, glamorous and dramatic in her own way (she's fond of skirts and stockings). Sometimes in the monologues Edie delivers, she has the sensibility of a teenager, nitpicking and gossiping. But other times, she philosophizes as if she were the only person in the world at that moment. I believe that even if the cameras weren't there, she would still dance and talk to herself.

There are cats and raccoons everywhere in the delapidated house. The gardens themselves are overgrown, and from the balcony of the estate, where the two sunbathe, you could walk across the tops of the trees to the ocean.

There is no narrator here, there are only the two women talking. Once in a while one of the Maysles, holding camera and sound equipment show up in the film, pointing the camera at a mirror or taking an offered snack. But this is Little and Big Edies' show. There are all sorts of beautiful moments in this superb example of cinema verite. More people will be able to see it now that it's recently come out on Criterion. And you should see it too.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick (1975)

Trying to pick a single screenshot out of this movie is on the level of what it was like trying to pick a single piece of candy out of a gigantic candy store when you were a kid, and your mommy said, only one piece, only one. I simply can't pick a single one out, so we'll have several. My pointer finger was poised on the screen capture button of my computer's DVD player during the entirety of this film. Counting up the total, I landed on a rather round number, 100 screen shots. Imagine that. This is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and even though it is not obscure by any means, I can't help but badger those who haven't seen it yet. Give it a shot. Yes, it's 3 hours long, yes, the main character has a limited emotional range and is hard to identify with, yes, the story is rather straight forward. It is the story of one man's rise and fall in a time long past. I still recommend it. Let me try to explain why.

Here's our man. The one in the brown on the right with the blank look on his face. Yep, that's him. Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon (played by Ryan O'Neil) is his name, and I would argue that he is a stand-in for all of us. This is quite a task, to be an everyman. The narrator and the characters in the story help to create the Barry persona by constantly pegging him as an upstart, a simpleton, a rogue. Everyone who meets Barry seems to have a distinct opinion of him. In this way, Kubrick sets up Barry as the everyman. But we look deeper and we see that our everyman is incredibly human, more complex than anyone gives him credit for. A case in point is Barry's relationship to the various father-figures that cross his path in life. Barry's emotional reliance on both the Captain Grogan and the Chevalier gives us a deeper look into a man who lives in a time where emotion is not expressed, where love and meaningful relationships are cast aside in the name of advancement and financial survival. Barry is not a saintly everyman. He is a sinner, a shameful one at times, but this adds to a fuller picture of our main character. No we don't identify with either Redmond Barry or Barry Lyndon, but we are given a well-drawn, fully-human character to stand-in for us in this time long past (to which we have no real connection otherwise).

God, how small we are. How small we are in this beautiful world. This is what I think of when I watch Barry Lyndon. Whether indoors or outdoors, Kubrick frames his characters in such a way as to put them in their place with respect to their surroundings, not unlike the classical Japanese painters of old. Trees, castles, paintings tower over Barry and the other characters of this world. Huge, sweeping events, such as the Seven Years War, and socio-political struggles, a result of the wide chasm between the nobility and the peasantry, rage on around Barry, showing him no particular deference (as the main character of the story). The narrator seems to regard humanity's value in free will with some humor as he describes Barry's journey through life as a mash of good and bad luck. But even if we agree with the narrator, we look beyond the fate-driven thrust of Barry's life and we see more than one life, but a multitude of lives dwarfed by the beauty of things that will outlast them. Having moved beyond the main narrative, we see the beauty of nature and even the beauty of things humanly-created.

Then, we notice smaller things in the film, such as the intense, sideways glance of a baby. We notice the contrast between the sheen of a tossed coin and the dirt and hay of the ground, in the midst of a duel between main characters. We notice the birds chirping, and the wind that blows hard through the Irish farmlands, elements of nature expressing emotion when our characters cannot. We wait expectantly for the long, calculated zoom-outs, revealing more and more of the lush surroundings, and having gotten there, we revel in the close-ups of faces, drawn tight and impassionate, revealing nothing.

But then sometimes, we notice that there is something more behind these blank stares, and Kubrick shows us how love happens and how grief happens in the midst of these greater, eternal forces. When Barry and the Countess of Lyndon's lock gazes, Kubrick fans the flames by jumping back and forth between the same two shots of connection between them. Candles flicker in the lower left hand screen of both shots. Then there is the scene at the end when the Countess stares at a note she is about to sign (I won't say more than that) and she stares off into space for a moment, remembering all that has passed.

Even in the midst of these larger forces, we have people. But most of all, we have an incredibly poetic film, perhaps the greatest period piece ever made, and one of Kubrick's best.